Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of God
“I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
–1 Corinthians 15:50
Paul’s declaration regarding the nature of the resurrection body, denying it of “flesh and blood” and insisting that it is a “spiritual body,” proves to be problematic for any apologist who wishes to defend the infallibility of scripture, for it clashes violently with the Jewish conception of the resurrection body presented elsewhere, most notably in Luke 24:39: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
So, the apologist must set out to demonstrate that 1 Corinthians 15:50 doesn’t say what it plainly says. By hook or by crook, it must be shown that Paul wasn’t really denying the resurrection body of flesh, or else, Houston, we’ve got a contradiction. Of course, none of their spin-doctoring is actually plausible. Paul is indeed denying that the resurrection body is fleshly in accordance with his Platonic/Gnostic view of the flesh as indicated in passages elsewhere:
“This sinful flesh, this body of death, with its ever present reality of sin, is constantly doing evil” (Romans 7:19). “Nothing good dwells in it” (verse 18), “therefore, there is a constant war waging against the law of my mind, making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my flesh” (verse 23).
And this, Paul does because he has assimilated the spirit/flesh dichotomy of his Hellenistic environment:
Plato (4th cent. B.C.E.) in ‘Phaedo’ “And the same may be said of the immortal: if the immortal is also imperishable, then the soul will be imperishable as well as immortal; but if not, some other proof of her imperishableness will have to be given. No other proof is needed, he said; for if the immortal, being eternal, is liable to perish, then nothing is imperishable. Yes, replied Socrates, all men will agree that God, and the essential form of life, and the immortal in general, will never perish.”
Philo of Alexandria, in ‘The sacrifices of Abel and Cain’, II “… Abraham also, leaving mortal things, “is added to the people of God,” having received immortality, and having become equal to the angels; for the angels are the host of God, being incorporeal and happy souls.”
Josephus in Wars, II, VIII, 11: “For their doctrine [of the urban Essenes] is this: That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward.”
The apologist must ignore all of this and play every cheap, swindling card in his deck. The first is to appeal to the previous passage in 1 Corinthians 15 (verses 35-41) in which Paul sets up the following analogy:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
The deceptive apologist attempts to apply the notion of different types of flesh to Paul’s view of the resurrection body, suggesting that the earthly body consists of one type of flesh, and the heavenly body another. But this does not follow, given the plain declaration in verse 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul is clearly using different conceptions of flesh in verses 35-41 as an analogy for there being different types of bodies–the earthly and the heavenly. And the heavenly body, the resurrected body, does not consist of flesh and blood, as Paul states unequivocally and in no uncertain terms. He doesn’t qualify it as “earthly flesh” or “natural flesh” or “worldly flesh.” Just flesh and blood, period. And, again, this straightforward reading accords with Paul’s view of the flesh elsewhere, as well as the spirit/flesh dichotomy that he has obviously appropriated from Hellenism.
Next, we get the apologetic plea that Paul is merely using synecdoche, and that he therefore means something other than literal flesh and blood. But scholar of religion Robert M. Price utterly dismantles this argument in his response to apologist William Lane Craig:
Craig’s attempt to deny that the word “flesh” (sarx) really means flesh is downright comical. Just as Bultmann wanted swma to mean something other than “body” for the sake of his theology, Craig desperately wants sarx in 1 Corinthians 15:50 (“Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God”) to mean something other than “flesh” for the sake of his apologetics. He wants Paul to have been talking about a resurrected Jesus with a body of flesh, just one no longer subject to death, like Superman, so he does not want 1 Corinthians 15:50 to mean that the risen Jesus lacked a body of flesh. So having turned spirit to flesh in the case of the spiritual body, he will now turn flesh into spirit.
How does Craig accomplish this exegetical alchemy? He cites various Old Testament passages which show how the phrase “flesh and blood” was often used as synecdoche (part for the whole) for “mortality.” So when Paul says “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” he need mean no more than “mortality shall not inherit immortality,” which, come to think of it, is exactly what he does say in the second half of the parallel: “neither shall the corruptible inherit the incorruptible.” He need not mean, Craig wants us to believe, that a man with a body of flesh could not inherit the eternal kingdom.
Was Craig absent on the day they explained what synecdoche is? If you use a part to stand for the whole, then what’s true of the whole must be true of the part. That’s the whole point. If you cry, “All hands on deck!” You expect all crew members to be present in their entirety. Just because you don’t mean they are to place only their hands on the deck, a la Kilroy, doesn’t mean you exempt them from bringing their hands along with the rest of their anatomy! In other words, why would anyone ever use “flesh and blood” to stand for “mortality” in the first place unless he had in mind the obvious connection that flesh is always corruptible? We die because we are flesh, and flesh wears out, gets sick and dies, as Prince Siddhartha learned the hard way! “All flesh is grass,” says Isaiah 40:6. Craig seems to think that since a metonym means more than the literal referent, it can as easily mean the very opposite of the literal referent. Or that the literal referent can be exempt from the very implication being drawn from it and for the sake of which it was invoked! It is simply absurd for Craig to suggest that one might say “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God” meanwhile supposing that someone who had in fact inherited that kingdom did so while wearing a body of flesh!
Most recently, I had a local preacher who debates on the Courier & Press forums under the alias, IndianaEnoch, pull this little number: “Paul didn’t say neither flesh nor blood could not inherit the kingdom, he said flesh and blood could not.”
He was insisting that Paul only meant to deny blood, not flesh.
What. Bullshit. My response:
“Yeah, sure, he was just an evil genius playing clever word games in order to confuse the flock. Stop it. Paul obviously means both flesh and blood, and this is contextually supported by Paul’s view of the flesh [elsewhere in scripture]. Besides, all Paul had to do was say, “Blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” if indeed that was all he meant. Why on earth would he choose to be so misleading, so utterly lacking in clarity, when the reader’s eternal well-being is supposedly on the line? The “neither flesh nor blood” gambit is sheer nonsense.”
But this is the game that the poor apologist must play in order to rescue his precarious faith. He is a victim of cognitive dissonance reduction run amok. It renders him nearly illiterate. To quote philosopher and linguist I.A. Richards:
“…the desire to improve our reading, worthy though it is, won’t help us unless it operates though the work of puzzling out a passage because we care what it says … But interest … is also the great logic-breaker. If we want to, or if something in us wants to establish something, we grow blind to any thwarting idea, however familiar it is or however obvious it might otherwise be; we deform our distinctions and connections to meet our aim [and] commit every sort of injustice…”
(Professing the New Rhetorics, p. 37)